Here are the top ten most misused words in English.
Usage: of no significance or relevance
Actual Meaning: A point which is debatable and open for discussion
Contrary to common misuse, “moot” doesn’t imply something is superfluous. It means a subject is disputable or open to discussion. e.g., The idea that commercial zoning should be allowed in the residential neighborhood was a moot point for the council.
Misuse: The one, the only. The best.
Actual Meaning: The last item of a list.
Some people do actually use this one properly. You may see someone list off a bunch of things and hear them say, “Okay, at the store we need eggs, milk, juice, and ultimately, butter.” That is actually the proper use of ultimate. There is no other context or added context. It simply means the last one.
Misuse: To skim or browse.
Actual Meaning: To observe in depth.
When you peruse something, you are actually taking a very close look at it. When you’re at a record store (remember those?) and you’re just running through a stack of records, you are just browsing. If you pick up a record and look at the artist, track list, and additional information on the back, then your are perusing.
Misuse: To do something voluntarily by choice.
Actual Meaning: To be forced or obligated to doing something.
This is one that people get wrong and it’s rather understandable. The real definition is very close to the definition people generally use. The difference is the motivation. When people say compelled, they think the person wants to perform the action. In fact, they are forced to do it regardless of their personal feelings. Here’s an example. When you’re in court, you are compelled to give honest testimony. You may not want to, but it doesn’t matter because you have to.
Misuse: To feel ill.
Actual Meaning: To cause feelings of illness.
This is another understandable mishap that a lot of people make. If you actually feel sick then you are nauseated. The object that made you feel ill is nauseous. Here’s how this works. If you’re at an amusement park and you’re sitting next to a full trash can, the fumes from the trash may make you feel ill. That means the fumes from the trash can are nauseous because they are making you feel nauseated.
Misuse: Huge, enormous.
Actual Meaning: Profoundly immoral or evil.
Don’t beat yourself up over this one because no one knows this one off the top of their head. Enormity sounds like enormous and as with many of our other examples, here we expect words that sound alike to have similar meanings. Enormity simply means really evil. An example of how to use it is the following: “The enormity of the crimes committed by the Nazis in World War II.” It doesn’t mean the enormous crimes, it means the heinous crimes.
Misuse: Fantastic, good.
Actual Meaning: Horrific, to inspire fear.
This is another one that we expect will be changed in the dictionary eventually because barely anyone uses the real meaning anymore. When people say they feel terrific, they mean to say they feel fantastic. An example of something terrific is King Kong. You see a giant monster and it inspires fear. We’re going to loop awesome in with this one too. Awesome simply means to inspire awe and people often use it to describe something really good.
Actual Meaning: Neutral.
A good way to remember this one is that there is a word that means bored and it’s uninterested. If you’re uninterested, you’re bored. Being disinterested is the long-form equivalent of stating that you don’t care about something.
Actual Meaning: Over the course of a long time.
This is definitely one that people ought to know better. When you have severe pain, it is just severe pain. If you have chronic pain, you have been in pain for a long, long time. Chronic conditions and diseases are called chronic because they won’t go away and not because they’re overly severe.
Misuse: A lot of something.
Actual Meaning: More than is needed.
This is one I use incorrectly all the time. In fact, I almost used it a couple of times in this very article. Plethora simply means that there is more of something than is needed. For instance, you may think that 5,000 people is a plethora of people. However, when you put them into a hockey arena that seats 13,000 people, it’s actually less than half capacity and therefore not a plethora. If you had 13,500 people in that same arena, that would be a plethora of people.